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Your data online is a hot commodity

When you signed up for Facebook, you might have expected that the content you would share — vacations, life milestones and pictures of your cat — would be publicly available. What you might not have expected is that data on all your interactions on — and even some off — the site or app would be collected, stored and made available to third parties who might want to influence not only your buying, but your voting decisions.

As it turns out, that could be what 50 million or more Facebook users experienced during the 2016 presidential election, thanks to a potent combination of Facebook’s business model, tech-savvy political players and social-media users who were none the wiser about just how valued their behavioral data could be to the first two groups.

National news media broke the story: A British data analysis firm called Cambridge Analytica with ties to several GOP campaigns, including Donald Trump’s, gained access to the behavioral data of as many as 50 million Facebook users who had no idea it was happening. It obtained the data through a personality quiz app developed by a Russian-American academic at Cambridge, who likely violated the social network’s user agreement by selling the information he’d collected to the firm.

Some are concerned that Cambridge Analytica used that massive amount of personality and preference data to target political advertisements for the campaigns that hired it, and those actions may have influenced the outcomes of various elections to an extent that elections law either prohibits or doesn’t yet address.

Investigations are forthcoming — into Cambridge Analytica’s activities, Facebook’s responsibility and campaigns’ use of the services they paid for — but it’s not yet clear which laws or guidelines may have been broken. Even so, the impact of the revelations, which included an $80 billion stock-market tumble and calls to #deletefacebook, also suggest a broader conclusion: Internet users are experiencing a rude awakening regarding what information they’re providing online and how it might be used.

It’s a discussion as relevant in the Rogue Valley as it is in Silicon Valley.

While the political significance of these data-harvesting and analysis practices are difficult to distill at a county level, another area where social network user preferences are valuable currency is in advertising for businesses. This is the area that interests Mark Dennett, who runs local marketing firm Dennett Consulting.

Dennett said advertising has always relied on gathering the kind of “psychographic” data that enables targeted messaging. But, he said, most past models of data collection required the consent of the people being surveyed or questioned in focus groups. New models such as Facebook and Google, however, collect data almost behind the scenes: by tracking online behaviors, they glean what users might respond to — typically without communicating the full value of that knowledge.

“I personally think this is not necessarily unethical,” Dennett said. “But it borders on it, because when you sign up and you give basic information to Facebook, you don’t think you’re signing up to be a commodity.

“It’s not upfront, and I think historically market research has been upfront,” he said.

Dennett said he prefers online surveys to inform marketing strategies, so he launched what he’s calling the “Survey For Good” panel, asking customers to sign up to take surveys that would help his business clients target their advertising. He’s also offered to donate $2 to United Way for every survey taken.

Jim Teece, a local marketing executive with Project A in Ashland, said platforms such as Facebook have leveled the playing field for local small businesses, exactly because they collect so much user info and can narrow it down to local markets. Google is another example.

“People who are all up in a tizzy about Facebook don’t understand you’ve given your life and all of your data to every (online) organization you’ve worked with,” he said.

People’s awareness about the way these internet giants are structured seems to vary; some have only a slight understanding that they are the commodity that allows free services such as Google to thrive, while others know, but don’t mind.

Neil Matthews, an Eagle Point resident, said he thinks companies across the web collect his information, but due to their popularity, “Facebook and Google get the brunt” of complaints and worries.

“I don’t know if it bothers me,” he said. “I just know that it’s happening.”

He also said, “People are going to vote for who they’re going to vote for,” regardless of online advertising.

Others are more concerned about the political repercussions of their readily available data.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Melissa Lara, a recent South Medford High School graduate. “There’s a lot of young people on social media, so it’s easier to target them.”

Although Cambridge Analytica told Facebook and the U.S. government that it deleted all the data on voters it had, a London-based news agency published a report March 28 that indicated some records still exist, on voters both in Colorado and Oregon. The Democratic Party of Oregon also called for an investigation into two Republican politicians’ ties to the data firm: Art Robinson, candidate for District 4, and Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, during his unsuccessful run for governor in 2014.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Melissa Lara says she’s learned more about internet data security. “It’s kind of scary,” said the recent South Medford High School graduate. “There’s a lot of young people on social media, so it’s easier to target them.” - Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Neil Matthews of Eagle Point said he’s aware that information about him is gathered by marketers through social media. “I don’t know if it bothers me,” he said. “I just know that it’s happening.” - Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune